It is quite surprising that, even today, religious beliefs are widely accepted as cultural norms and solutions for natural human err, even at times when these beliefs deny us our basic human rights. Nothing has highlighted this more than the ongoing debate on child marriages in Trinidad & Tobago. When government announced that there would be a review of the legal age of marriage earlier this year, several officials from the IRO went into an uproar. Things got as far as one of these officials unapologetically stating that “government should stay out of the bedroom affairs of families.” The debate continues today, with many NGO’s and concerned citizens calling for an end to child marriages, vis-à-vis the dogmatic stance of some officials of the IRO who remain in support of the practice.
The United Nations have stated that the practice of child marriage is a fundamental denial of the rights of a child. For most of us, the thought of a 12-year old getting married is quite unsettling, as well. But in order to truly understand why child marriage should be outlawed, we need to go beyond these unsettling thoughts and really internalize what marriage is and what it is not. Once we are able to do this, then there really won’t be a need for a debate.
Stripped to its bare core, marriage is a legal contract. Its chief function is to facilitate the merging and protection of assets of the parties involved in the contract. While it may be an emotionally disturbing thing for some to learn, the institution of marriage is not about love, though it may have evolved to mean this for some persons. With the rise of sedentary agricultural societies about 10,000 years ago, marriage became a way to ensure the rights to land and property, by designating children born under certain circumstances (“legitimate children”) as rightful heirs. With the absence of DNA-testing back then, marriage allowed wealthy men to pass on their wealth to children that they were sure were theirs. In essence, the marriage agreement meant that wealthy men would provide for their partner and offspring in exchange for exclusive sexual access. The men, however, were allowed to have mistresses, but they only acknowledged their “legitimate children” as the rightful heirs to their land and property. When these societies became larger and more complex, marriage grew from being a simple matter between individuals and families, to an official institution now governed by religious and civil authorities.
Child marriage then, is far more than a denial of the full benefits of childhood. Entering a child into a legal contract that binds them to another person under law is a complete infringement of the rights of that child. Once we understand the legal nature of marriage, then it stands to reason that the parties entering into such a contract must be of sound cognitive and reasoning capacity to do so. The fact that the practice requires the consent of adults, speaks volumes to its inappropriateness. Is it right for someone else to decide for, and enter a minor into a legal contract? It is also a scientific fact that, the emotional center of the brain is more developed than the frontal portion that controls reasoning and logic in persons under the age of 18. It is for this reason that many teenagers are prone to making irrational decisions or developing unhealthy attachments to persons. It is also for this reason that attempting to have adolescents understand the legal consequences of entering into marriage is not fool-proof, and thus why child marriages, at any age, should not be allowed.
When a secular society maintains archaic laws that are based on subjective religious views, as opposed to human rights, we end up with many contradictions. When the age for sexual consent is at 18 years, but some religious faiths allow marriage to occur at 12-years of age, we have a severe contradiction in our law and in our land. If a person is not considered mature enough to give sexual consent under the age of 18, then the legal contract of marriage does not negate that immaturity. Calling it statutory rape in one instance, and marriage in another, does not change this fact. Barring persons under 18 from opening a bank account, or purchasing cigarettes and alcohol, yet allowing them to enter into marriage is an insane contradiction. We seem to forget that marriage is more serious than any of these actions, and in many ways it is more serious than the sexual act itself, for it legally binds two people together.
Our collective inability to separate church and state is both glaringly apparent and worrisome. Even in his best attempts to address the human rights issue of child marriage, the Attorney General mentioned that in some cases (presumably teenage pregnancy) it can be allowed. Marriage is NOT a solution to teenage pregnancy. It is a legal contract. Marriage does NOT sanctify pregnancy, nor does it “cleanse” the sex act. Assuming that it does either is irrational as it gives marriage a virtuosity that is not owed to it. A pregnant teenager is still biologically a teenager. Marriage does not change that fact. Under the law, the biological father must take care of his child. Marriage does not make it more possible for him to do so.
Allowing under-aged persons to enter into marriage in some circumstances, opens up the door to possible abuse. There is the grave possibility that a teenager can become pregnant and does not want to marry, yet may be pressured to do so by her parents in order to hide some perceived moral shame. Marriage is NOT a veil. It is a legal contract. Moreso, because of their predominant emotional disposition and vulnerability, teenagers are prone to being coerced and influenced by their caretakers, without fully grasping the consequences of entering into a marriage. Years into the future, they can both regret it and become woefully unhappy. If they do love each other, they can wait until they are much more mature to reason through all the legal ramifications of marriage. Pregnancy is not a good enough reason to allow teenagers to marry. Furthermore, allowing a pregnant teenager to enter into marriage where sexual activity is more readily engaged in and expected increases the possibility of more children being born to parents that are economically, emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped. This is illogical. Sex is a biological and natural desire that young people can, and oftentimes do engage in. BUT, a teenager that is having sex is not signing a contract that legally binds them to another and stipulates the merging of their assets. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that the human rights of all persons, particularly the most vulnerable in society, are protected.
It is beyond time that we dismantle our archaic religious-based laws and replace them with laws based on human rights. Laws that are based on human rights are universal, indivisible and take into account the biological and psychological statuses of those involved, as well as the power dynamics within society. Religious-based laws on the other hand, are subjective, and this is clearly evident as even officials within the IRO are divided on the issue of child marriage. While we must respect the religious beliefs of our people, we cannot have laws that are determined by religious doctrine. It is not government’s responsibility, or even their place, to decree what is moral. It is their responsibility however, to protect the human rights of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable – our children. Like food, sex is a biological urge, and while a government cannot control the natural curiosity of adolescents, it can set boundaries on adults who seek to take advantage of this curiosity. Again, because teenagers are biologically prone to do irrational things, leniency can exist between two teenagers having sex, but not between a fully reasoning adult and a teenager. More importantly, a teenager should not be allowed to enter into the legally binding contract of marriage.
Allowing child marriages to legally occur, regardless of the circumstances, opens up the possibility for teenagers, especially females to become victims – victims of domestic abuse, legalized human trafficking, legalized child slavery and legalized prostitution. Determining the sanctity or lack thereof of the sexual act, is an individual decision. It is not the business of government to judge what is moral with regards to sexual behavior. This cannot be reiterated enough. Marriage also does not make teenage pregnancy more tolerable, nor does it make a teenager reason better or make sex between an emotional teenager and a rational adult more acceptable. A man does not need to marry a teenager to fulfill his fatherly obligations. The law suffices to ensure that fathers and mothers support their children regardless of marriage. The focus must always be on human rights.
Our first step in all this is to acknowledge that beliefs, religious or otherwise, are subjective and not always based on facts. Some beliefs are simply things that have been repeated so often to us, that we accept them as true, but they are not the truth. These types of beliefs are the basis for many stereotypes and biases that exist in society. We need to dismantle the belief that girls must be custodians of virginity and sexual morality. We need to dismantle the belief that sex is something dirty and immoral. Sex is simply sex. It only becomes wrong when one of the parties involved cannot give consent. We need to dismantle the belief that religious doctrine takes precedence over human rights. Stealing is not a crime because God said that it is. It is a crime because you are taking something that legally belongs to someone else. Embedded religious doctrine that seeks to decree right from wrong and impose shame on those that veer off that perceived righteous path, only causes emotional turmoil and panicked reactions, as opposed to thoughtful responsiveness. Marriage is NOT the solution to teenage sexual activity and pregnancy. Thinking that it is only leads to blind and panicked reactions. Teaching proper sex education in schools and making contraception readily available is a smart and logical response to the fact that teenagers do engage in sexual intercourse. It’s like having a swimming pool in your backyard. You can try everything to keep your child from getting into the pool, even building a fence around it. But if you know that there is a possibility that the child can still get in, why not just teach him to swim?
D.Thomas is a director of research and public advocacy, business consultant and strategist, managing director, social entrepreneur, artist and writer.
This article was first posted on the author's blog, Unimprisoned Minds. This space provides a forum for critical thinking and objective perspectives.